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Following on from my introductory Karma Yoga article…
How can we ever possibly hope to be free in life when we have no control over the results of our actions and the knowledge that every gain will ultimately entail an inevitable loss?
A Means of Eradicating Stress and Worry
It’s quite a predicament. It seems only natural that we’re constantly stressed! Fortunately the solution was already figured out thousands of years ago, and that’s what Karma yoga is for. Karma yoga is a simple means of eradicating stress and worry from our lives in order to create a peaceful, tranquil mind. It’s simple, easy to grasp and although it may take a little effort to reorient our mindset, it has the potential to transform our entire experience of life.
Don’t be put off by the name. Karma yoga isn’t what most people might think it is. In the west the word yoga is generally associated with contorting the body into all kinds of elaborate and exotic poses. In actual fact the word yoga has a much broader meaning. Literally meaning “to yoke together”, yoga is about creating balance and unity of mind, body and spirit and encompasses a wide spectrum of practises and teachings.
While physical yoga such as Hatha yoga has its benefits, Karma yoga is the most important yoga for day to day, moment to moment living. It’s a means of navigating through life with ease and grace, eliminating a large amount of the stress that is pandemic in our modern culture. Karma yoga is not a set of physical poses or breathing techniques. It’s simply an attitude of mind; an understanding and a way of approaching life and dealing with action and the results of that action.
Karma yoga is derived from an ancient Indian text called the Bhagavad Gita. Part of the epic Mahabharata, it features a dialogue between Arjuna, a warrior prince and Krishna, his mentor and teacher. Arjuna is a noble and honourable man who is forced to take part in a terrible battle in which he must fight against some of his most loved friends and family. Although it’s his duty to fight in this conflict to make right a terrible wrong, he is deeply confused and no longer knows what to do in life. The battle of the Gita is a metaphor for the battle we all face in our daily lives: having to deal with difficult circumstances and do things we often don’t want to do. Overcome by confusion and doubt, Arjuna lays down his weapons and turns to Krishna for advice.
The content of the Gita can be divided into two essential categories: knowledge and action, jnana and karma. Jnana yoga is the yoga of Self Knowledge and relates to understanding the true nature of reality and our identity as the limitless Self (pure awareness). This leads directly to liberation and enlightenment: moksha, or freedom; which is what we are ultimately seeking in every single action we perform. But as we learn in the text, the yoga of knowledge doesn’t really work unless the mind is first prepared and receptive; a mind that is free from stress and agitation.
That’s where Karma yoga, the yoga of action, comes in. So the Gita begins by teaching Karma yoga, which is a simple psychological tool for managing our likes, dislikes, attachments and aversions, and creating a largely peaceful, stress-free mind. “Even a little karma yoga frees one from great fear,” Krishna explains.
So what is karma yoga and how is it practised?
Karma yoga can be broken down into three basic steps:
1. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude for all that life has given us
2. Offering all our actions back to life
3. Letting go of the results and taking whatever comes as a gift
Cultivating a sense of gratitude for all that we have is important in and of itself. Gratitude is not something that needs to be forced; it comes naturally when we step back and take an objective look at just how much we have to be grateful for. Life is a gift. It’s given us absolutely everything: a physical body and all the necessary resources and conditions for that body to survive and flourish.
We are given a lifetime supply of oxygen and as long as we attend to the body’s basic needs for food, water, shelter and sleep there’s really very little we need to do to maintain it. We don’t need to worry about digesting our food, circulating our blood or taking care of respiration. It’s all done for us. We had and have parents, family, friends and people who looked out for us.
It’s also highly likely you’ve always had a roof over your head, food in your belly and enough material resources to get by in the world. Everything about our existence is miraculous! If the conditions on planet earth were even just a little different, if our orbit was a fraction closer to or farther from the sun, this would just be a barren hunk of rock floating through space. But here we are— gifted with an incredible body and mind, and all the resources and tools we need to live and experience the wonder of being alive.
Life Doesn’t Owe Us Anything
A lot of people go through life labouring under the delusion that life somehow owes them something. These people tend to live unhappy lives, full of dissatisfaction and suffering. For life owes us nothing. It’s already given us everything; everything we have and everything we are!
Karma yoga asks us to recognise the great debt we owe the world for our very existence. To live with a mindset of trying only to maximise all we can get from life is to live a miserly and permanently dissatisfied existence, because no matter how much we get it’s never enough. It would clearly be preferable to live with a mindset of giving rather than getting. To live with the intent of giving something back to life, to contributing positively to the world in some way, creates a far healthier state of mind and forms the basis of Karma yoga.
This doesn’t mean that we have to try to live up to some saintly ideal and deny our basic needs and desires. It simply means that we live our lives from a sense of gratitude, openness and expansiveness as opposed to miserly lack, greed and complacency.
It’s highly probable that life hasn’t given us all we wanted or hoped for. That’s sadly the nature of the game, and it’s true for everyone. Some people spend their lives wallowing in self pity and lamenting all the things that ‘could have’ and ‘should have’ been. This is clearly no way to live. It’s a disempowering attitude which stems from superimposing our personal likes and dislikes, our desires and aversions onto life. Again, life doesn’t factor our likes and dislikes into the equation—it has bigger concerns than our lists of petty ‘wants’ and ‘don’t wants’.
It’s important to shift our attitude back to one of wonder and gratitude at all the incredible things life has given us. These include the simple everyday miracles we tend to take for granted, such as our ability to see, hear, touch, taste and smell; to look up at the stars at night; to feel the sun on our skin; to live, love and dream. Life has given us everything. It owes us nothing. We owe it!
Offering Our Actions To Life
Once we’ve acknowledged the debt we owe the world for our very existence, the second step of Karma Yoga flows naturally from this.
We offer up all our actions, even the most seemingly insignificant ones, back to life; to the universe, God or whatever conception you have of the higher power that governs and maintains the world.
A lot of people have difficulty with the term “God” due to centuries of misuse at the hands of religion. Vedanta uses the term Ishvara to refer to the totality of the field of existence; the intelligent, impersonal force that creates and sustains the universe according to inviolable natural laws. Ishvara is both the efficient and material cause of the universe; the intelligence that shapes it and the very material and substance of creation. Everything is therefore Ishvara; everything is done by and belongs to Ishvara. It is unnecessary to be familiar with or to adopt such terms. All that is required is an understanding that the universe is governed by certain inviolable laws—laws governed by an innate intelligence over which we have no say or control. We acknowledge the greater intelligence of life which has given us everything we now have—all of which is ultimately just on loan. It doesn’t pay to be squatters in life, or to act as miserly thieves. Karma yoga is our opportunity to pay our rent to life.
Whatever we do, whatever action we perform, whether it’s some huge and ambitious undertaking or simply cleaning our teeth, we offer it as a gift back to the creative intelligence of the universe; the force that gave us our bodies and grows our hair and fingernails.
Every action thus becomes sacred; an offering to something greater than ourselves. Because we will only want to offer actions that are worthy of being offered (and not actions that are harmful to ourselves or others in some way) this will also tend to make us more conscious of the choices we are making in daily life. We will automatically tend to avoid harmful, self-abasing actions.
Letting Go of the Results
As the Bhagavad Gita states, “you can choose which actions you perform but you have no control over the results.” Having offered our actions back to life, we then recognise that the results are no longer in our hands. They never really were!
Every action contains within it the seeds of its own results. These results will be determined not only only the nature of those seeds but also the nature of the field in which they are planted (specifically, the environment and other people). For any action to take place and yield results, countless factors are involved, most of which we have no control over. Our act of doer-ship is but one among many factors that determine how things will turn out.
Releasing our actions into the world is like shooting an arrow. The moment it’s released it’s now under the control of the set of natural laws that govern the field of existence: in this case the laws of gravity, propulsion, time, space and the nature of the target. Although we’ve given it our best shot, whether it hits its target or not depends on many circumstances and conditions outside our direct control. This lack of control is precisely what creates a great deal of our anxiety and Karma yoga is perfect means for neutralising that anxiety.
So we practise Karma yoga by imagining handing our actions over to Ishvara, God, Fate, the Universe or some entity or benevolent helper. Using whichever representation of this universal creative intelligence appeals to us; we dedicate our action to it, and then imagine entire lifting the weight of responsibility—and everything we might be concerned about—over to this higher intelligence. The burden is no longer ours to bear. We might say something along the lines of “I do this for you and I give it to you. Please deal with this for me.” We’ve done our part and the pressure is now off us!
The Danger of Expectations
Because the results are not under our control we must drop all expectations about the results of our actions. This doesn’t mean we don’t want a certain outcome, but we no longer spend our time and energy agonising over something over which we have no control.
As Swami Paramarthananda notes: “Any single action can only be an infinitesimal part of the immense fabric of life, so what reasonable expectation can we have of a particular result? None. Given the complex nature of the field in which actions take place, most of our expectations will be disappointed.” Therefore, clinging to our own rigid set of expectations, desires and ambitions, we open ourselves to all kinds of frustration, disappointment and possibly bitterness.
We also fail to see to that what we think would be beneficial for us may in fact not be the best thing for us. As Douglas Adams said, “I seldom ended up where I wanted to go but almost always ended up where I needed to be.” Life is very much like that. What we might be convinced is the best result for us may in fact be something that is inappropriate and not in our best interests. As little individual beings, our intelligence is nothing compared to the vast intelligence of the universe. This realisation brings the utmost humility!
Taking What Comes As a Gift
The final part of Karma yoga is to accept whatever results come our way as prasad, a divine gift. What life brings us is based upon laws of cause and effect that cannot be circumvented. We thus learn to take the results with grace and equanimity.
Events do not happen in isolation. Everything is connected to everything else, all part of a vast and unfathomable chain of cause and effect stretching all the way back to the origin of the universe. We may not get the result we wanted, but this recognition—that things do not happen arbitrarily but according to the laws by which the universe functions—puts our whims and desires into perspective. There really isn’t an atom out of place in the universe. How could there possibly be? For this moment to exist as it is, everything that’s ever happened in the entire history of the universe had to happen as it did.
This knowledge enables us accept the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in life by recognising that our definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are ultimately arbitrary. We think we know what’s best for us, but very often we don’t. Life knows better and it trumps us every single time.
Karma yoga encourages us to see the positive, and to recognise the zero sum nature of phenomenal existence. Every upside has a downside and every downside an upside. Pleasure and pain, gains and losses, success and failure are simply the nature of life and there’s no escaping that fact.
We have been given all the tools we need to deal with whatever life brings, both the joys and the inevitable sorrows. By recognising the nature of action and its results, we are freed from the suffering and anxiety brought about by our rigid desires and expectations. We also lose the ingrained tendency to superimpose what we think life should be upon simply what is. The result can only be freedom.
Karma Yoga Summary
Karma yoga starts with an acknowledgement of the debt we owe the world for our very existence. Instead of continually trying to bleed all we can out of life, we live with an attitude of gratitude and desire to contribute something back. Everything we have and everything that believe we own is actually just on loan from life, and that includes our bodies. By living the Karma yoga spirit we are paying our rent back to life.
All our actions, even the most seemingly insignificant are offered back to whatever conception you have of a higher power. Having dedicated all our actions to this creative intelligence behind the field of existence, we recognise that the results of those actions are no longer up to us. They are no longer our responsibility, so we no longer need worry about them.
The knowledge that the vast intelligence of life, operating according to unbreakable laws of cause and effect, knows better than we do, enables us to take whatever results come our way with equanimity and evenness of mind. This creates a dispassionate, peaceful mind and a mature outlook on life. We no longer live like spoilt little children constantly making demands of life and throwing tantrums when things don’t go our way. Karma yoga is a practical approach to dealing with action and the results of action, and one that removes great stress and anxiety. It’s an approach that anyone, anywhere, in any situation can adopt with hugely beneficial results.
In Vedanta, the ultimate aim of yoga isn’t simply to make us feel good, but to qualify the mind for moksha (liberation or enlightenment). Yoga and meditation don’t bring about enlightenment directly, but they do cultivate the pure, calm and tranquil mind that is necessary for jnana yoga, the yoga of Self Knowledge, the means by which the individual is freed from the bondage and suffering caused by misidentification and superimposition—ie, confusing the Self (pure awareness) with the apparent self (the limited body/mind entity; reflected awareness). This will be the subject of a future series of articles about Vedanta as a means of Self Knowledge and freedom from psychological suffering.
Stress is the great pandemic of modern life. The world is constantly throwing demands and challenges our way, and these are interwoven with our own assorted desires, fears, habits and conditioned responses. Every day consists of a seemingly never-ending array of karma; countless actions we must undertake from the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we nod off to sleep at night.
The Fundamental Desire
The motivation behind our actions, dividing action into three basic categories: those motivated by desire for security (artha), desire for pleasure (kama) and the desire to follow duty and virtue (dharma). What do these all have in common? The motivation behind every single action we take is the desire for freedom (moksha).
We want to be free of ignorance so we spend a significant chunk of our life in education. We want freedom from insecurity so we work to make money. To be free from loneliness we seek out relationships. To be free from boredom we occupy ourselves with stimulating pursuits. We want freedom from unhappiness so we spend our life chasing the things we believe will make us happy. Heck, even brushing our teeth is motivated by the desire for freedom: freedom from toothache! Every single action we undertake and everything we want and pursue in life is born of this fundamental desire to be free.
Unfortunately there’s a big problem when we rely on an action to bring us freedom. Because although we’re able to undertake certain actions, we ultimately have no say in the result of those actions.
People rarely like to admit that, but if the opposite were true—if we were able to control the results of our actions—then everything we ever did would be successful. Every time we bought a lottery ticket we’d surely hit the jackpot! Sadly life doesn’t work like that.
The Big Problem In Life
This explains a basic human insecurity. We never know how things are going to turn out. We spend our lives doing things we think will bring us freedom, but we’re constantly anxious about the results of our actions because those results are not up to us. We want what we want, when we want it and we do what we can to make that happen—but the truth is, life doesn’t care what we want. We have our assorted likes and dislikes, our hopes, desires and expectations, but life has a whole lot of other things to factor into the equation. Life will give us what it gives us based on innumerable factors, driven by inviolable laws.
This is the source of much of our stress and worry. Because we have no say in how things turn out, life is unpredictable and stressful. To confound matters, even when we do manage to achieve our desires—the perfect relationship or the prestigious, well-paying job—we know deep down that anything that can be gained in life can, and in time will be lost. Nothing lasts forever and life is constantly chopping and changing. As my teacher often says, life is a zero sum game! Every gain entails a loss and every loss a gain. That’s just the way it goes and there’s no changing that.
So how can we ever possibly hope to be free in life when we have no control over the results of our actions and the knowledge that every gain will ultimately entail an inevitable loss?
The next article will reveal the ancient art of Karma Yoga, the secret to living a stress-free life. Stay tuned!
I received some requests to continue my Tao Te Ching series, so here goes :) I also intend to blog a little more often and get back into the swing of things now that work on my second novel is finally nearing completion!
- 49 -
The Sage has no fixed mind;
she understands the mind of the people.
She treats those who are good with goodness.
She also treats those who are bad with goodness
because goodness is the nature of her being.
She is kind to the kind.
She is also kind to the unkind
because kindness is the nature of her being.
She trusts people who are trustworthy.
She also trusts people who are not trustworthy.
This is how she gains true trust.
The Sage lives in harmony with all below heaven.
Her mind is like space.
People don’t understand her.
They look to her and wait.
She sees everything as her own self;
she loves everyone as her own child.
Lao Tzu challenges us to change the way we relate to the world and other people. It’s easy to be nice to those that are nice to us, to repay kindness to the kind and to trust those we deem worthy of our trust. But the Sage, living in alignment with the Tao, does not discriminate or differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. She treats all with love, kindness and compassion regardless of who they are and how they conduct themselves. In fact, the people who behave in the most dysfunctional of ways are invariably those most in need of love and kindness.
Shifting to this mindset can pose a real challenge, for it seems only natural to reward kindness with kindness and repay hostility with hostility. The Sage, however, shines upon everyone in much the same way as the sun does. The sun shares its light with everyone. It never discriminates; judging who is worthy of unworthy of receiving light. It simply shines and shines, never holding back, for that is its nature.
Lao Tzu is suggesting that we be the same. Some people may gratefully receive the light we shine, whereas others may react in a less gracious manner. But is it possible to love, accept and be kind to everyone regardless of how the mind might be inclined to judge them? For the light of awareness that illumines all these different body/mind/ego entities is the same in each of us.
This brings to mind one of my favourite quotes by Hafiz:
“Even after all this time, the sun never says to the Earth “you owe me”. Look what happens with a love like that: it lights up the whole sky.”
Life is nothing but the unending dance of karma. Karma is the engine that drives phenomenal existence; an unfathomably immense, interwoven chain of causes and effects that stretches all the way back to the origin of the universe.
Karma is an interesting topic, albeit one that’s frequently misinterpreted and misunderstood. Karma is a term that originates in the oldest of the ancient Indian Vedas, and which has gone on to greatly influence other traditions (including Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, etc) and in recent decades has even come to permeate Western popular culture.
In fact, a few years ago a popular US sitcom called My Name is Earl based its entire premise on karma; featuring a well-intentioned redneck attempting to systematically clear his karma by atoning for his past misdeeds. It was a charming and genuinely funny show and it did an interesting job of tackling the law of cause and effect. The show was at times a little confused in its approach to the topic, often depicting karma as some kind of supernatural deity or force, deliberately testing and teasing Earl as he tried to balance his karmic record. As often happens when concepts and ideas are appropriated and decontextualised by foreign cultures, things tend to get a little distorted in translation as two different world-views collide.
Karma is action
Karma is actually pretty simple, although it is a subtle, nuanced topic, open to misinterpretation.
So what actually is karma? Karma is a Sanskrit word that literally means “action”.
Everything we do is karma. Our lives are basically non-stop karma — from brushing our teeth first thing in the morning to switching our bedside light off at night. Karma refers not just to physical actions but also subtle actions, such as the thoughts we think, the desires we entertain and the intentions we hold.
Karma of course takes into account not only these actions, but the corresponding effects of those actions; on the body, mind and the world around us. Karma refers to cause and effect, action and reaction, and the inextricable relationship between the two. In common usage most people use the word karma to refer to the consequences of an action, but karma actually encapsulates both the cause and the effect, the action and the result, because the two are are inseparable.
Everything we think, say and do is a result of past karma and everything we think, say and do creates additional karma. Whatever karmas we perform, whatever actions we do, creates an impression not only on the world around us, but in our own psyche as we will learn — and these impressions can be positive or negative depending on whether they create helpful or harmful results and tendencies.
Good and bad karma
Good karma is called punya karma and bad karma is called papa karma. If I do something kind for someone with a pure motive, I will get punya: the other person will be grateful and appreciative and I will feel good about myself. This person may even be inclined to do something thoughtful for me return. If I do the same charitable act but with an impure motive (such as perhaps wanting to manipulate the person in some way), I am likely to generate papa: I’ll be unhappy if the other person doesn’t respond in the way I wanted them to and I probably won’t derive any joy from their gratitude because making them happy was not my intention. So the karma we accrue is largely based on motive.
If I was to go out and rob a bank or assault someone, I would most certainly be generating papa karma. Sooner or later I will be held accountable for my actions. The police will catch up with me and throw me in jail and I will also have to deal with the varying levels of psychological misery I’ve created for myself and others. Karma rebounds on both the gross and subtle levels; not only physically, but psychologically and spiritually.
Karma and vasanas
So what is it that drives us to perform and accumulate either good or bad karma? The simple answer is what we’ve done before. Our karma is driven by our past actions. As mentioned before, the karma we perform—the actions we do and thoughts we think—creates impressions not just in the world around us, like throwing pebbles into a lake, but also at the core of our own psyche.
Whenever we perform an action, be it gross (physical action) or subtle (on the level of thought), it creates an imprint, a groove in consciousness called a vasana. The more we do something, the stronger the vasana gets and the more likely we will be to repeat the action in the future. If I eat a delicious slice of chocolate cake for the first time and I enjoy it, it immediately creates a vasana, a little imprint in consciousness. From that point on, the more I eat chocolate cake, the more I reinforce that chocolate cake vasana and the stronger it becomes until it begins to drive my actions.
This initiates a quite unconscious cycle of vasana-kama-karma, whereby the unconscious imprint (vasana) creates desire (kama) which compels me to act on it (karma). And of course, by acting out the desire and scoffing yet another slice of cake, I only reinforce that cake vasana and the cycle continues.
The human psyche is driven by the vasanas. Most of the time we are just big vasana machines, our vasanas governing our desires and aversions, which are then acted out as karma—which then self-replicates, reinforcing itself again and again. It takes a significant level of self-awareness to get become aware of and to change these behavioural patterns; to master our karma.
The three types of karma
Vedanta outlines three different types of karma: sanchita karma, prarabdha karma and kriyamana karma.
Sanchita karma is karma in its seed state, caused by actions we have performed in the past, leaving a store of either positive (punya) or negative (papa) impressions in the causal body, or the unconscious. The causal body is the root of all the vasanas, the tendencies to act out our desires and aversions. This is karma which has accumulated over lifetimes is stored in subtle form, in a dormant seed state that has yet to fructify.
From the seed state we move to prarabdha karma, which is the portion of sanchita that will sprout and fructify in a particular lifetime. Prarabdha is accordingly responsible for determining the constitution of our character and personality and the experiences it magnetises. When the prarabdha eventually burns out, the body is shed.
The third type of karma is kriyamana or agami karma, which is the karma we happen to be creating in the present. Whether punya or papa, the seeds all get added to the store of sanchita, which will then fructify at a later time, and thus the cycle continues.
Determinism and free will
Karma is a mechanism that explains the immense variety evident in human beings from the time of infancy onward; not just in terms of psychological makeup, but even the striking diversity found in physical bodies. It weaves the fabric of our lives, forming the very structure of our psyche. This may sound deterministic and it is to a degree. We like to think we are agents of free will, but when I reach out to grab a slice of cake is it actually me that’s making that decision or is it my cake vasana, the subtle karma based on past actions that generates that almost uncontrollable urge to gorge myself on irresistible cake?
Neurologists have now shown that our decisions are made before we even think we’ve consciously made them. That is the power of our vasanas, the pull of past karma. Yet human beings are unique in that they do apparently have a degree of free will. Understanding the mechanics of karma can be liberating when we realise that by following right action and generating punya, we have the ability to shape our future within the limits of whatever prarabdha is outworking. We do this by following dharma, which is an innate, universal and in-built code of right action (an important topic which ties in with karma, and which I will cover in a separate article).
Some people view karma as a kind of cosmic force of reward and punishment, but the truth is subtler than that. Karma is simply the law of causation and consequence. Even the smallest stone thrown into a pond creates ripples. The law of karma is completely impersonal, a system of innumerable factors endlessly operating in this, the field of phenomenal existence. Karma is no different to gravity in that sense; it works impersonally and for everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you throw something in the air, gravity will bring it back down to earth.
Sometimes it can be perplexing when we see people who are clearly not the most virtuous of characters but who seem to get away with lying, cheating and stealing while enjoying success, power and prestige. Ultimately everyone is accountable for their actions, for their karma, whether punya or papa, will definitely fructify and at some point catch up with that person. But it may not happen immediately; the karma may be worked out at a later time. It could be that such an individual is running off some positive punya karma, which will of course eventually run out.
There have been a number of cases in the news lately of well-known celebrities and entertainers who were pedophiles and yet through the punya generated by significant charity work and the like, managed to get away with their actions for decades. But once the good karma has run out, the bad karma catches up with them and they are forced to atone for their actions.
Karma and Reincarnation
For many, karma is synonymous with reincarnation. Reincarnation is a subtle topic, far subtler than most people generally understand it, and depends really on how you look at it. Creation exists by constantly cycling and recycling itself, for matter cannot be created or destroyed, only altered into different forms. Clearly this happens to the physical body at the time of death. The matter of our bodies will disperse and change form to become all manner of new forms. But what of our consciousness? Will the person I am now reincarnate into another life? According to Vedanta, the answer is yes but no.
The person I am now is unique to this life. This person has a name, a certain physical body, was born and lives in a certain place, has certain parents and friends and circumstances that are unique to him and that have shaped his experience of life. He can’t reincarnate because, if I were to go through careful analysis, I can’t even prove that he’s ‘real’ to begin with. If I was to try to find and point out this person called Rory, I’d be in for a real challenge. I’d be able to find assorted components…a body is sitting here, and there are certain thoughts and memories and desires and aversions arise in awareness, but where is ‘Rory’ in any of this? It’s impossible to pin him down. All I can find is a baseline awareness and certain components appearing in awareness that I lump together and label ‘Rory’.
In a future incarnation, what will I be? I won’t be the person I am now. I won’t have the same memories, I’ll have a different body, a different name, different parents and circumstances, a different environment, different circumstances and different prarabdha karma to work out. So, the person I think I am won’t reincarnate. All that’s actually here to begin with is awareness appearing to be a person through a certain body and mind, which functions as what is called an upadhi — a limiting adjunct, something that makes one thing appear to take on the appearance and qualities of something else (in this case making limitless awareness appear to be a person).
So what does reincarnate? Karma — in the form of the vasanas; the content of the causal body/unconscious. Awareness will have a different form, a different name and wholly different circumstances, assuming the guise of a whole new person, and from the store of sanchita, different karmic seeds will sprout. Heck, perhaps if I don’t resolve it in this lifetime, the cake vasana will be back…
It’s important to note that we can break the cycle at any time as we can transcend karma with jnanam — knowledge. That’s what Vedanta is for; a sophisticated, time-tested means of Self knowledge which, when assimilated by a prepared mind, leads to moksha, or liberation. The cycle of personal karma is brought about by an ultimately erroneous sense of doership, caused by taking ourselves (awareness) to be something that we’re not (the person/mind-body complex). (The issue of doership is a crucial understanding in Vedanta and is beyond the purvey of a single article, as it requires careful and deliberate unfolding, utilising the unexamined logic of one’s own experience).
To be Self-realised is simply to shift one’s sense of identity from the doer/mind-body complex back to the Self, which is pure awareness; that which ever-witnesses and transcends the phenomenal. In doing so, the jnani, the Self-realised being, is no longer bound by the wheel of karma; karma is now impersonal. In some ways the jnani is like an animal, living in complete accord with his or her own nature, free from karma because with no sense of autonomous doership, there is nothing to bind him/her. Prarabdha karma still plays itself out for the duration of the incarnation, but the store of sanchita is void, because there’s no one to take ownership of it; like a parcel sent to a house in which no one lives anymore.
As James Swartz says in his commentary of Shankara’s Tattva Bodha (available here):
“Just as the dreamer becomes free of all actions he or she performed in the dream on waking up, the realised soul is freed from sanchita and agami karma when he or she wakes up to the knowledge “I am whole and complete, actionless awareness”. Even the prarabdha karmas that fructify in his life will not affect him. Just as a man who views himself in a distorted or concave mirror knows that he is free from the limitations of the distorted image, a Self-realised soul also knows that he is not bound by the limitations of the body and the mind.”
In conclusion, karma is a key understanding in helping us make sense of action and reaction, cause and effect and how every single action generates both seen and unseen consequences. At its most basic level, it seems absurdly simple: do good things and we’ll accrue good results. But a more thorough and nuanced understanding helps explain why we tend to behave the way we do and how the momentum of our past actions, in thought, word and deed, influence us in the present moment and indeed how they affect our future.
I’m grateful to Janet Adams for contributing the following post on the topic of karma. I’ll be adding my own thoughts in my next post, in which I hope to demystify this familiar but widely misunderstood concept.
Karma: East and West Perspectives
by Janet Adams
Most people have some familiarity with the Vedic concept of karma. Many exotic concepts entered the consciousness of Westerners during the Romantic period of the 1800’s. The counter cultural revolution of the 1960’s reintroduced the use of these spiritual and philosophical terms, and the New Age Movement has continued the legacy. Karma is the physical manifestation of the law of cause and effect; and balance and harmony. It applies to the results of decisions reached and the attitude held by human beings, who have free will and choice. Karmic experience offers an individual to reconsider choices, attitudes and actions held to see if these decisions are founded in alignment with the laws of the system.
Karma might be seen as basically a gap in your understanding. Karma facilitates knowledge and understanding and only applies to the human kingdom, for people have the ability to exercise free will and to change results to suit them. Karma presents people with the opportunity to create results in relation to what they want. It encompasses the urge to know more about feelings and actions; the necessity to experience an action more fully and form different levels of understanding so that one’s knowledge and understanding grows. Karma guides people to align their thoughts and intent with the balance of coexistence. This makes it possible for people to project more harmonious thought and intent, which can then manifest through the materials, tools and processes of creation.
Karma cautions people against wrong doing and in turn presents them with the opportunity to do better. People live, exploring all forms of materiality through better understanding, learning how to influence, alter and maintain these forms in equilibrium and harmony. Evolution is crucial in enhancing people’s understanding and knowledge. The law of karma makes it possible for people to understand their experiences and to balance them out.
The concept of karma originated in the Vedic system of religion known to the West as Hinduism. In its major conception, karma refers to the physical, mental and spiritual system of neutral rebound or cause and effect, inherent within the bounds of time, space and causation. Human beings’ experience is governed by an immutable preservation and interplay of energy, vibration and actions. It is comparable to the golden rule that denies the chance of depending on fate for reservation of credible incidences. Western conceptions are attributed with absolute reason and determinism to the working of the cosmos.
Karma naturally implies reincarnation since thoughts and deeds in past lives will affect one’s current situation. Humanity comprises a collective grouping of karma and individuals in some cases might be seen as responsible for the tragedies and fortunes they experience, although the workings of karma are rather subtler than this. The concept of an inscrutable God figure is not necessary with the law of karma. It is vital to note that karma is not an instrument of a god, but rather the physical and spiritual physics of existence. As gravity governs the motions of heavenly bodies and objects on the surface of the earth, karma governs the motions and happenings of life, both inanimate and animate. Karma governs the unconscious and conscious, generating tendencies and actions that perpetuate.
Destiny and fate are better understood through the workings of karma. Many people have likened karma to a moral banking system, credit and debit of good and bad. Karma is both the root that binds and that which helps people escape bondage, through the performance of good deeds and noble intentions, using the functioning of cause and effect to to their highest advantage.
Janet Adams is a writer with a Masters Degree in Educational Science, who now uses her writing skills to serve students with an inexpensive essay writing service which helps college students in building a successful academic writing career.
It’s been a while. I’m sorry for such heinous blog neglect. Here’s a little update.
I’ve been working hard on my next novel, which is an extensive rewrite of a book I first drafted some years ago, called The Key of Alanar. I’ve already shared a little bit about this particular journey here. It’s a story that’s been with me since I was only about sixteen, and one that’s very close to my heart. I consider the version I wrote before to be a kind of skeleton version. I’m a better a writer now so it’s been interesting going back to revisit and resurrect it. While it’s the still same story with the same characters, I’ve added bits, taken bits away and endeavoured to make the prose tidier and the characterisation punchier.
I’ve found that it’s actually harder to go back and rewrite something from the past than it is to write something new from scratch. In many ways I’m a different person now and if I was to create it from scratch it would probably reflect that. It’s nevertheless something I’m very pleased with. It’s a real journey, a journey of the human spirit — from loss and lack through darkness and despair, to eventual redemption and wholeness. Sadistic as it sounds, I take my central character and torture him relentlessly, stripping everything away from him and putting him at the mercy of all kinds of demons, both inner and outer. I feel the ending is going to need some substantial adjustment to reflect changes in my own understanding since I first wrote it. It’ll be interesting. I’m looking forward to being able to share the book with the world, hopefully by the end of the year. It’s pretty epic in every regard.
I’ve also been spending a lot of time with my head down, studying, living and practising the teaching of vedanta, which is the most remarkable thing I’ve ever found in my life. Neither philosophy nor religion but a pramana, systematic and very logical means of self knowledge, vedanta has been leading people for thousands of years from the suffering to wholeness, simply by reorienting one’s point of self-identification from body/mind/emotions/ego/intellect (which are all objects perceivable to us) to awareness (that which perceives; the eternal subject). The moment I stumbled across vedanta, I realised I’d found what I’d been looking for for the best part of a lifetime. I knew instinctively that if this didn’t work for me, nothing would. And, assuming certain psychological qualifications are in place and one is committed to putting in the time and energy to make it work, it does actually work! I’ve seen it work on myself and others. It is the closest I’ve ever found to a science of consciousness and self realisation — and I speak as someone who studied psychology at degree level. It’s the greatest of gifts and I’m going to share some of my journey and what I’ve learned on this blog as and when I get the chance.
Until then I have a guest post to share on the nature of karma, and I will follow it up with my own post to clarify certain points and demystify something that just about every has heard of but which few understand properly, even in the world of spirituality. Hope everyone is enjoying the summer. It’s beautiful here. Every day is a gift.
The problem really isn’t life. The problem is our attitude to life. Life is simply what it is and it does what it does. It’s value neutral; a machine that just churns out experiences and events based upon an unfathomably complex chain of cause and effect dating all the way back to the origins of the universe and space/time.
There’s nothing personal about what happens.
The problem comes when we expect life to match up to our likes and dislikes, our wants and desires. We want life to be what we want it to be. But life doesn’t care what we want. Why should it? It’s so inconceivably vast and it’s got a heck of a lot on its plate, so our petty little likes and dislikes simply don’t factor into the equation. It gives us what we need and our experience is based upon innumerable factors and the fructification of so many past events, actions and karma.
That’s the nature of the machine–and this was a pretty horrifying realisation for me! I didn’t really want to hear that. It’s certainly not what they told us in The Secret. But since I don’t suddenly have the bank balance of Bill Gates, the sales figures of JK Rowling or the blissful radiance of Ramana Maharshi…I can conclude that the universe doesn’t quite work like The Secret would purport. It would seem a more mature perspective is this: life is what it is; and we can get with the program or suffer. Ouch. There are certain little things that I can change, but most things I cannot, and that includes my basic nature and the basic nature of life and others, which I simply have to accept, embrace and find a way to work around.
Life is pretty amazing. It’s given us everything. We were provided with a body, which is simply the most incredible feat of engineering in the universe. We were given a lifetime supply of oxygen, water and food…and we don’t have to do anything with it; our bodies know precisely how to distribute oxygen through our bloodstream and how to digest food and poop and sleep and all the rest of it. We were given parents and taken care of during our formative years. We were given people to love us, take care of us, as well as people to challenge us, force us to grow and learn and become all we can be. Yeah, life isn’t always easy, to put it mildly. But we’re never given challenges we can’t deal with. Speaking for myself, I have recently seen how the most difficult things, people and relationships in my life have been like the grit in the oyster that in time alchemises to create something beautiful and precious.
I was walking down the road the other week and it was raining. I noticed a neighbour had left out their washing, which was now soaking wet. I mused how twisted life can seem that way: we want one thing to happen (dry washing!) but life has other ideas. Then I saw that some little red tulips had seeded themselves in a flower bed outside my front door. And I realised how incredible life is; always sending beautiful little surprises our way, unbidden, unexpected — and sadly, for many people, often unnoticed. Next time it’s a clear night I recommend taking a look up at the starry sky. If that isn’t one of the most amazing gifts, then I don’t know what is.
So life gives us everything. It does everything. We don’t own any of it, either. It’s all just on loan to us, including our bodies. Realising that everything we have, and everything we appear to be is just a temporary loan and NOT something we’re ‘entitled’ to, not something that belongs to us, really shifts our attitude to life.
For me it has helped cultivate a real sense of wonder…and gratitude. Knowing that I’m not owed anything and that I don’t and can’t own anything here, makes me grateful for all the simple, everyday blessings that are all around. We have so much; more than we could ever realise. We actually need very little to get by in life, infinitely less than our hyper-consumer culture would have us believe.
It takes a clear mind to see things this way. When my mood gets low I might start to slip into seeing things through a darkened lens again. It’s easy to do that when the media feeds us nothing but the darkest and most disturbing aspects of human life and society via news outlets. That exists, sadly, yes. But it exists largely because we don’t know who we are…we don’t know how blessed we are to be alive…and because we buy into a vicious consumer mindset that conditions us to believe that no matter how much we have, we need more and better, leaving us perpetually dissatisfied, unfulfiled and empty. To me, the deluded mindset of materialism, consumerism and the unbridled capitalism that is causing such destruction to the planet, is no less than a crime against the human spirit. Even just seeing this, however, allows us to begin to transcend transform it.
Life is beautiful. We are beautiful. That’s the simple truth. Remember that, and have a great day.
One of the best bits of advice I was ever given was this:
When you’re feeling low emotionally, don’t take your thoughts too seriously.
When our state of consciousness has dipped, our thinking is not clear; it becomes cloudy and distorted. We then tend to see the world as an unequivocally terrible place and we focus on the very worst in ourselves and in others. Whereas, when we feel lighter, freer and happier emotionally, our outlook and our view of the world/ourselves/others is radically different. It’s the very same world we’re inhabiting, and our situation and circumstances and those around us may be exactly the same…but we can see things in a far clearer, more balanced way.
Which suggests it’s not really the world that we actually experience — it’s our thinking that we experience. If we can ride out the storm and just take it easy until things balance out, then our minds will naturally be clearer, freer and more capable of making objective discernments and decisions.
I know it’s so easy to let our emotional state cripple us. I really love the Bhagavad Gita. It starts with Arjuna throwing his hands in the air as he’s about to go into battle and saying “to hell with this! I quit! I give up! I’m not gonna do this.” By his own admission his mind is “a mess” and he can’t see anything clearly anymore.
What does Krishna tell him? Basically this: “hey, you’re letting your emotions override your judgement and blind you to your duty, to your responsibilities and to your purpose. You’re wallowing in self-pity and this is unbecoming of the great soul that you are! Get up and do what you gotta do! Fight!”
This is maybe not the advice we want to hear but sometimes we need a splash of cold water in the face. The war of the Gita is a metaphor for the war we face every single day; the war being waged in our own minds and psyche. It’s the war between doing what we’re meant to do — following our dharma and pandering to the petty little likes and dislikes, desires and fears of the mind. I often think of it as the self-created disparity between who we are and who we choose to be in our daily lives.
It’s tremendously stressful and what we’re actually experiencing is an internal civil war. We’re pulled in different directions; our heart leading us in one direction and our unconscious conditioning leading us in the opposite direction. The result is confusion, pain and suffering and often an almost crippling sense of anxiety or depression. Modern society doesn’t give us any signposts with regard to our dharma…it’s too messed up by capitalism, materialism, greed and consumerism. In fact modern society is a large part of the problem, so we have to look beyond it…
In the next post I will reflect a bit more on the nature of the the problem and the age-old conflict of me vs life.
- 48 -
One who seeks knowledge
learns something new each day.
One who seeks the Tao
unlearns something new each day.
The practice of the Tao consists of daily diminishing;
less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.
True mastery is achieved
by letting things take their natural course.
Often people talk about the things they’ve learned or acquired in life, whether it’s information, knowledge, objects or experience. The Tao Te Ching asks us to consider that perhaps the real key is unlearning things. It’s often the case that more we think we know, the less we actually do know. And so Lao Tzu is asking us to substitute our practice of daily accumulating for daily diminishing. Instead of continually adding to ourselves and our supposed knowledge of the world, we are actually subtracting from ourselves and letting go of all the things we think we know. Only in this state of complete openness can we approach the Tao, in much the same way that only an empty vessel can be filled.
From the moment we’re born, we are conditioned and socialised into the ‘ways of the world’ or, rather the ways of the particular society we’re born into. As children we’re like sponges, continually soaking in new information and knowledge; a lot of it useful and necessary, but much of it erroneous and harmful. There comes a point in our lives when we have to challenge the conditioning of our formative years, particularly if it is of a dysfunctional nature. This is where it becomes especially helpful to take on the practice of daily diminishing: consciously letting go of old thoughts, beliefs, habits, world-views and conditioned ways of seeing things and responding to life.
The less encumbered we are with the viewpoints, opinions and belief systems instilled in us, the freer we are and the easier it is to have a direct experience of reality as it is, without having our view of everything distorted by our various mental filters. The practice of daily diminishing makes it easier to enter the flow of life, to allow all things to be as they are, bestowing life the freedom to be what it is, and to recognise that we are not separate from any aspect of it.